Ethiopia: Forgiving Derg officials for Christmas

By Eskinder Nega / December 24, 2010
Come January 1974, Ethiopia was quiet as a calm sea. The low-key insurgency in Eritrea, the only organized political movement in the country, was going nowhere. Having successfully confined the insurgency to the peripheral low-lands, the army’s casualty figures (after more than ten years of fighting) were still remarkably low. The student movement had peaked in the early '70s but was losing steam as the mid-'70s approached (as were student movements elsewhere.) But whatever the intensity of the students, their failure to link with the wider populace had always meant they were benignly semi-tolerable. And for a few years there was an unexplained, sudden spur of economic activity. To many, a take-off, closely resembling that of south east Asia, looked imminent.

But just below the surface were also the simmering dangers. Generously buttressed by the Soviet Union, Somalia, which had territorial claims over a fifth of Ethiopia’s land mass, was building a large, highly mechanized modern army -- one clearly intended for a Blitzkrieg in the eastern lowlands. And Ethiopia was lagging badly. (Three years later, a confident, militarized Somalia struck taking advantage of the disarray at the center.) Haile-Selassie was on the verge of senility; his designated successor was incapacitated by a stroke; and, fatefully, there were no strong hands to stir the reigns of government. The regime was visibly drifting.

A month later, in February, the implosion of a new dawn, unsolicited and unorganized, caught the nation utterly unawares. The catalyst: news of devastating famine in the north and the oil-shock of 1973 and 1974, which eventually quadrupled prices and triggered unprecedented inflationary pressures. Between February and June 1974, broad lawlessness engulfed the nation, threatening an outbreak of anarchy. No civilian government was able to assert authority. To avert chaos, intervention by the army was only inevitable and necessary. And it came (officially) on 28 June 1974 (they had been organizing covertly and half-heartedly for weeks.) A hundred and nine representatives of the nation’s 40 armed units, ranging from privates to majors (higher ranking officers were barred), convened in Addis and established the “Derg”, “Committee” in Geez, once Ethiopia’s dominant language but now spoken only by the Orthodox clergy. To chair them, they opted for Major Mengistu Haile- Mariam, in deference to the primacy of the second division, then the nation’s most powerful, which he represented. No less, his humble background and dubious ethnicity conveniently personified the revolutionary spirit of the times.

Two and a half months later, the Derg had deposed Haile-Selasssie, on September 12, 1974, and imprisoned the entirety of the regime’s civilian and military leaders promising “change without bloodshed.” Three days later, it renamed itself the Provisional Military Administrative Council and formally assumed state power under a new chairperson, Lt. General Aman Andom. But as soon as the proud General learned -- much to his outrage -- that the Derg only intended him as a figure head, while real power still lay with Major Mengistu, a showdown was unavoidable.

Ninety tense days later, the Derg, incensed and intimidated by Aman’s refusal to play along, settles on showing -- to friend and foe alike -- who really was in charge. And tragically, when nothing more than a simple dismissal of the General would have sufficed (as one of Haile-Selassie’s senior officials, Aman posed no real danger), the Derg succumbs to inexplicable hysteria and opts for a massacre, foolishly, and with no apparent due cause, reversing its “no bloodshed” promise to the nation. Along with Aman, his close associates and bodyguards, more than 50 other senior Haile-Selasssie officials were brutally murdered and all buried in a mass grave. The nation was literally stunned in to outraged silence. Not even the harshest critics of the fallen regime approved.

The backlash was soon in full motion. Scores of opposition groups sprang up, and suddenly, the nation went from no opposition to host of the largest number of political organizations in Africa. Oppression bred resistance, not the hoped for submission. And resistance disastrously bred even more bloodshed. The low-point came three years later, in February 1977, when Mengistu, no more hindered by moderate Derg members (Brigadier General Teferi Banti et al), whom he had just eliminated in a palace-coup, proclaimed the advent of “Red Terror” in response to the “White Terror” of the Derg’s most adamant opponent, the EPRP.

The concept of Red and White Terrors was imported from the early days of the Russian revolution, which had resulted in a civil war. Both sides in that war -- Red Communists and White Non-Communists -- embraced violence as a vital political weapon, calculating that it would be indispensable to an eventual victory. Leader of the Whites, Lavar Kornilov, for example, instructed his army to “set fire to half of the country and shed the blood of three-fourth of all Russians.” He even ordered the death of “all workers.” The Communists were no less apocalyptic. Explaining the Red Terror in an newspaper article in 1918, they said : “Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms and words. Ask him instead what class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of the Red Terror.” At least 10 of Russia’s 100 million people must be “annihilated,” proclaimed Communist leaders openly.

In Ethiopia , the Derg and its civilian allies, clearly inspired by the precedent set in revolutionary Russia, publicly vowed “to avenge the (lost) life of one revolutionary with the lives of a thousand anarchists(EPRP members).” Following up on their threat, thousands of officials (kebele administrators and Revolutionary Guards throughout the country) were armed and bolstered with a government issued “license to kill (netsa ermeja)” edict.

For six infamous months (between February and August), alleged EPRP members, many of them teenagers (some barely in their mid-teens), were hunted mercilessly and summarily executed. Those who escaped execution were imprisoned and mostly tortured. In the end, patently amateurish EPRP death-squads, whom Mengistu had fantastically equated with Korilov’s huge White Army, were to gun down less than 150 officials (the exact figure is disputed), to which the Derg and its civilian allies responded disproportionately with numerous human rights abuses and thousands of executions. But exactly how many thousands will remain as elusive---and controversial---as ever. (Amnesty International’s estimate of 500,000 deaths, however, is grossly exaggerated. Most of the killings happened in Addis, whose population was roughly one million back then.)

An ever expanding capacity for incomprehensible violence characterized the Derg’s reign right up to the end. Between the end of the Red Terror and its demise in late 1991, for example, the imprisoned Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch, Abune Tewflos, was pitilessly strangled to death (with lead wire), and Mitsewa and Hawazen were wantonly bombed by the Air Force, despite the absence of a compelling military target on the ground.

No amount of violence, however, was able to prevent the downfall of the Derg. The end came after seventeen long years, in May 1991, ironically, courtesy of not the political groupings it had feared but from the midst of the political underdogs. Stunned by a defeat that was never supposed to happen, Derg officials, whose larger than life reputations had become part of the public legend, stood humbly in line to give themselves up to the victors. No sight -- before or since -- amazed the public more. Only one of the 109 members of the Derg, General Haile Melese, defied the new regime by melting into his home region -- rural Gonde -- and trying to organize an armed resistance. (Hampered by old age and lack of external support, he was doomed almost from the start. He now lives in New Zealand. His valor, however, still stands in sharp contrast to his comrades.)

And for the past twenty years top Derg members have remained in prison, reflecting on their past and the terrible consequences of their reign (Eritrea seceded, too.) Their controversial(for its delay and charge of genocide) trial lasted more than twelve years, culminating in the death sentences of 18 of them: Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, Captain Fikre Selassie Wogderes, Colonel Fisseha Desta, Major Berhanu Bayeh, Captain Legesse Asfaw, Major Addis Tedla, Lieutenant Colonel Endale Tessema, Captain Gessese Wolde-Kidan, Major-General Wubshet Dessie, Major Kassaye Aragaw, Colonel Debela Dinsa, Captain Begashaw Atalay, Second Lieutenant Sileshi Mengesha, Colonel Nadew Zekarias, Lieutenant Petros Gebre, Second Lieutenant Aragaw Yimer, Major Dejene Wondimagegnehu, Lieutenant Desalegn Belay.

And now, as 2003 Ethiopian Christmas approaches (about two weeks from today), more than 37 years after the dramatic events that inadvertently propelled them into the pages of history, they are seeking the nation’s absolution. Inevitably, emotions have stirred.

(To be continued next week)
Merry Christmas!